— May 5, 1980
Susan Strasberg's Autobiography
By the time she was 1-1/2, it was obvious Jenny was
limited in her activities. She was not able to run and play with the other
children. She could not keep up. She walked slowly, stopping to rest
every few feet. The other children played with Jennifer until they tired
of her sedentary activities or pace and ran off.
Strasberg played the
victim of a 400-tear-old medicine man in the 1978 film, The Manitou. Tony
In addition to this problem, Jenny had
a speech impediment, which would be partially corrected by surgery. Her
voice was very nasal, and there were certain sounds that she was unable to
make or that were barely understandable. At 3-1/2 she underwent successful
Her heart doctor said to me, "There are advantages
and disadvantages to waiting longer for her heart surgery. When she's 5
or 6 she should be stronger, more able to tolerate it. But there's a
danger in waiting too long because she might be psychologically crippled.
I have seen that happen to children who, after they are operated on, still
think of themselves as being handicapped. For now, as long as she's not
passing out or falling on her hands and knees, we can wait. Those are the
danger signs for a child with her condition.
The next years passed too quickly and too slowly.
With Jenny's illness, a different sense of time colored my days. I had a
heightened awareness--how quickly now became the past. I was grateful to
wake up in the morning, hear Jenny breathing, see her crawl into bed with
I partially lost sight of my own life as a woman and
an actress during those years as I centered on Jennifer, but I was
rewarded by the pleasure of watching her blossom despite her handicaps,
seeing her courage.
Jennifer started school On her first day she had to
go into the classroom on her own. The other children ran down the stairs,
passing her by. I saw her shoulders shrink and then I watched her
straighten her back and move purposefully, one step at a time down the
stairs clinging to the railing. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to
have to let Jenny go. She had to stand on her own two feet.
that an actress and her daughter moved in across
the street, and the divorced father moved
in five houses down. I was pleased because the little girl was just
Jenny's age. "Hi," she said when she came to
introduce herself. She was a pretty, vivacious, extraverted girl. "I'm
Jennifer Grant. My mother's a movie star, Dyan
Cannon; my father's a move star, too, Cary Grant, but he doesn't work
anymore. He just sells perfume (Cary was associated with Faberge). What do
you do?" she asked.
I looked at her and cleared my throat. "Well, I act
Cary Grant and his daughter
Jennifer were neighbors and friends of Susan and her daughter Jennifer in
Cary was lovely with Jennifer. She was not seeing
much of her own father and she was longing for male company and attention.
I went to pick her up at Cary's home one evening when his daughter was
spending the night. They were all three lying on his king-size bed
watching television, Cary in the middle in his pajamas, his arms around
the two girls.
He kissed and hugged my child, tossing her in the
air as if she were his own. "You're a lovely girl, Jennifer," he said.
She blushed with pleasure. She had never seen him in a film, but it was
obvious he rated star billing in her book.
My girlfriend, Pattie McLaine, an intense,
good-natured redhead, was a psychic. We had met when I was pregnant. She
had been reading cards for me for four years. Approximately 80% of her
predictions had come true. One day she spread her tarot cards out on the
red Spanish shawl I was using as a bedspread: "Cut the deck three ways
with your right hand toward you," she said, "and make your wish." She
pulled out three cards and reversed them. "Keep your wish focused in your
mind, concentrate on it." Her voice became deeper.
I sneezed. "I wonder," I said, "why I always get a
cold when you read for me? Nerves? Maybe what I don't know won't hurt me?"
"Well," Pattie said, ignoring my comment, "first of
all, you get your wish, whatever it is, and I'd say by early next year."
"That's nice," I said. "Next year is only seven
"You've also got the fulfillment card here, and the
cards show that you're very, very anxious."
"I'm always anxious these days." I laughed.
"Your worries are passing within six months."
"It's June now. That means December or January."
"Susan, you're going to be taking a trip by plane.
Someone else is paying, so you're probably going for work somewhere in
this country. The South...yes, I'm sure it's for work. I see you reading a
script, and you're traveling alone."
"It's not very likely I'd leave Jenny to go and do a
film," I said.
"This is a short trip. Not months, maybe a week."
Pattie moved the cards around. They made a pretty
pattern against the florid peacocks and roses of the spread.
"You're going to meet someone on this trip. A man."
"Well," I said, "is that good or bad?"
"This man is going to be very, very important to
you. I'd say he's a Scorpio, young, thirties, maybe forty. Lightish hair,
blue eyes and very successful businessman, head of his own business. He
has children, too. Maybe... I think he's divorced. He's going to be very
important to your wish card. He'll lead you to your wish, whatever it is.
Oh, Susan," she said, "this is... Gee, I'm getting goose bumps."
"What is it? What do you see?" I leaned forward.
The pictures meant nothing to me.
"Jenny is dancing on the beach. She's twirling
around, dancing. It's sometime next year, early in the year, and Susan,
there's no question.... she's 100% better."
"If she is then it will be a miracle," I said,
"because she's not going to have her open heart surgery for at least a
year. I've just discussed it with her heart doctor. We're going to do some
preliminary tests in six months, but that's not going to make her 100%
better." Wistfully I stated, " I believe in miracles."
"Well," Pattie shrugged, "whatever. You're going to
be very happy. I see blessings all around you."
"God willing," I said, and knocked on wood.
Five months passed. Jenny, then 5, was scheduled to
go to UCLA Hospital for a catheterization to see exactly where the blood
was impeded and what might be missing. It required an anesthetic and, as a
preparation for her open-heart surgery, it was necessary.
Just before her tests I was committed to appearing
in a film a friend of mine, Barney Rosenzweig, was producing. It was a
cameo part, little money involved, not a great role, but I said I would do
it. It required only a week's shooting, but it meant being in Little
Rock, Arkansas. when they sent a tourist ticket instead of the first-class
one my union required, I said, "Look, it's not worth it. Let's forget it."
"Insist on first-class," Pattie said when I called
But by then I had decided I didn't want to do the
film. It required too much energy and time.
That night I dreamed that Faye Dunaway was pulling
my hair. She seemed to be asking for something, but I couldn't figure out
what. When I woke the next morning I thought it was strange, but put it
out of my mind until my friend Steffi Sidney called.
"Don't ask," I said. "I've got to call Barney and
tell him I can't do his film. Do you think he's going to be upset?"
"Don't worry," she replied. "I talked to him
yesterday, and the actor who's playing opposite you in your scene is
living with Faye Dunaway, and she told Barney if you didn't, she'd like to
do the part."
"Well," I said, "if it's good enough for Faye
Dunaway, it's good enough for me."
At the Actors Studio Susan
chatted with her father, Lee Strasberg, and his third wife, Anna, whom he
married in 1968.
The day I left for Little Rock, a friend, Barry
Parnell, drove me to the airport. He handed me a huge hardcover book,
The Seth Material, by Jane Roberts, saying, "This is for your trip."
"But it's enormous. There won't be time to read it,
and it's too heavy. I only carry paperbacks when I travel. Listen, with my
makeup kit and my camera and tape recorder, if I take this book I'll need
"Take it. I feel it's important to you."
On the plane there was no one seated next to me, so
I settled down to study my lines and read a bit of the book. It dealt with
metaphysical concepts of the world and one's place in it. After a while I
got up to go to the bathroom, placing the book on the seat next to me.
When I came back, the man across the aisle came over to me. He was young,
just under 40, and had blue eyes.
"Mah name is Louis Dorfman an' ah hope y'all 'scuse
me," he said in a Texas drawl, "but ah happened to see the title of the
book you're reading, and ah had a strange experience ah'd like to tell you
Oh, no, I thought. I had hoped to have time to
myself on this trip, but impulsively I said, "Please sit down."
He was on his way home to Dallas after some business
in Los Angeles. The plane stopped there on the way to Little Rock. We
ordered drinks, and he proceeded to tell me about an astral-projection
experience that he had had.
I was fascinated, and we continued to chat. He was a
lawyer and businessman, divorced and had two sons. Suddenly, in the midst
of this casual conversation, I had an overwhelming urge to tell him about
Jenny and her heart operation.
I plunged into her birth defects, her throat
operation, her impending tests to be followed eventually by open-heart
surgery. When I finished, he looked at me.
"It's funny," he said, "one of my good friends in
Houston is Denton Cooley. As a matter of fact, I'm going to a party at his
house this week. Do you know who Dr. Cooley is?"
"Yes, I know."
Dr. Denton Cooley was the man I always wanted to do
Jennifer's surgery. I had read about his phenomenal success doing
open-heart surgery on children. "May I tell Denton about your little
girl?" my new friend asked.
"I would be thrilled. Here, let me write the name of
her condition down for you. And this is my phone number. I'll be in
Arkansas and New York until the end of the week. After that, I'm home."
Dr. Cooley agreed to take a look at Jenny, so I
canceled her appointment at UCLA. We headed for Houston. Louis Dorfman
took us for a glorious meal with his sons, and the next morning before we
checked in at the hospital Jenny ate a breakfast fit for four Marines. She
remembered the food she had had on her previous hospital visits.
Most of the day was spent running from one floor to
another, doing various tests, EKGs, blood tests. First thing the next
morning they sedated her. By the time she left the room she was lying half
asleep on the hospital cart. "Mommy, come with me." Her voice was thick
with the medication and her speech defect. "It's all right," the nurse
said. "You can go with her all the way to the O.R."
Dr. Cooley came to see me later that day. "We've
evaluated the tests. The way it looks to us, you couldn't have come at a
better time. I'd like to operate on her."
"When?" I asked.
"The day after tomorrow."
"But I hadn't planned on doing it this soon. Not for
at least eight more months. After she's 6." My heart was pounding. "It's
just so sudden."
"Susan," he looked at me, "my hands will do the best
they can. After that, she's in God's hands."
"May I let you know in the morning?" I asked.
He nodded. "But you have to decide so we can make
I went into the room. Jenny was still sleeping off
her sedation. I talked with a friend about the pros and cons. "We could
come back in six months."
Jennifer sat bolt upright in her bed. "Mommy," she
said firmly, "I want to get it over with now. I don't want to have to come
back." I decided to go ahead.
The morning of the operation they began sedating her
at 5:45. Cooley usually operated on the youngest patients first unless
there was an emergency. He was reputed to do between 8 and 12 operations a
day, moving from operating room to operating room. The patients were lined
up, already cut open, ready for him.
11:30 Dr. Cooley's assistant came into the waiting room in his green
hospital gown. He said to me, "They're
just sewing your daughter up. It was a beautiful job. You're lucky. Cooley
would never tell you this, but I don't think any other surgeon could have
done what he did. There was more damage inside her than had been indicated
in the tests."
"Thank you," I said. "Thank you for coming to tell
me." Tears of joy streamed down my face.
When they finally let me see Jenny, I was
prepared for the tubes coming out of her mouth, the needle in her arm, the
tubes in her nose, the wide bandage across the center of her chest. What
caught me off guard were her fingernails and toenails. For the first time
since her birth, they were glowing pink like
"How long do think it will be before she comes back
to her room?" I asked the nurse.
"If her fever goes down and her lungs are fairly
clear, she could be back late tonight, but more likely by morning."
They wheeled her in early, with the sun, the next
morning. The day we left for home, they handed me a slip of paper
Operative Procedure 11/10/71. Total correction.
Dacron patch to VSD. Resection of infundibulum. Excision of pulmonary
value pericardial patch to pulmonary outflow tract. Direct closure of ASD.
I comprehended little of that, but then it read:
Condition on discharge: Not treated. Diagnose only. Improved. Not
improved. Recovered. Died.
"Recovered" was circled in blue ink. It was such an
Nearly a decade after her surgery, Jennifer Jones,
14 is a healthy seventh-grader. She will never be a great athlete, her
mother says, mostly because "she's a dreamer." Lately, Jennifer has
developed an interest in horseback riding at her co-ed board school on
Long Island. She wants to be a writer.
Jennifer's father, Christopher Jones, appeared in
Three in the Attic, Wild in the Streets and The Looking Glass War
before landing the memorable role of Major Dorian in the 1970 classic
Ryan's Daughter. Since then, he has devoted himself to painting. He
lives in Los Angeles with an artisan and their 2-year-old son,
After years in California, Strasberg is now
re-acquainting herself with Manhattan. She lives alone in a West Side
apartment and sees Jennifer on weekends. Louis Dorfman, the Texas
businessman who recommended Dr. Cooley, is still a friend.
The actress appeared recently in the NBC miniseries
Beggarman, Thief and has been featured in such movies as In
Praise of Older Women and Roller-Coaster. But writing, not
acting, is Strasberg's passion nowadays. She is working on her first
novel, Loveknots, which is the saga of a Southern family. "A great
performance like Lady Macbeth may be forgotten," Susan Strasberg says.
Susan Strasberg left the earth on
January 21, 1999. Her daughter, Jennifer, is alive and well in southern
California. Susan was a wonderful friend. I still miss her, but she
comes around to visit me now and then. I've asked her to throw me a party
on the other side when I get there. She always gave great parties. She
was the Qabalistic godmother of both of my children. I assume she's still
looking out for them from the other side. Susan's other book about her
friendship with Marilyn Monroe: MARILYN AND ME Sisters, Rivals,
Friends, was published by Warner Books in 1992.